Two years ago I was walking down the street in Montreal when a set of black-smocked girls approached me and asked if I wanted to serve as a hair model for a master hairdressing program their salon was hosting. I was in desperate need of a cut and eagerly agreed. Half of my haircut was completed by a trendy looking salon owner from Edmonton, the other half from the program’s instructor, a professional stylist from London with a fancy accent that made everything he said sound mildly flirtatious.
Later that day I walked out with a minor crush, a great cut, and shockingly blond hair. In time, I grew to like the energy of the color so much that I decided to continue it. I was now part of the estimated 75% of women in the United States who color their hair.
Color for Cash
The trouble with hair color is that it traps you. What I didn’t think over in the salon that day was the constant attention and cash that coloring my hair would require. Once you start you can’t stop. When I went in for blond round two, I was flabbergasted at how expensive it was. You can easily pay upwards of $100 for something that only lasts a few months. As Nora Ephron puts it, “Where hair dye is concerned, being blonde is practically a career.”
I quickly discovered options that made coloring my hair slightly more affordable, such as going to the Aveda Institute, connecting with a stylist who worked from home, and asking friends to help me do it on my own. But all that work just for my hair was hard to justify and a little exhausting.
Research has revealed that hair color affects the way others view us. You may come off as temperamental, smart, needy, approachable, or even earn more because of your hair color.
Maybe you don’t have your next promotion in mind as you schedule your coloring, but the act is undeniably superficial. We color our hair in order to change how we look and therefore the impressions of others.
I’m all for having fun with your clothes and style, but what does our addiction to the artificial say about the expectations for our own appearance? Why do we keep returning to the salon (or purchasing the kit) month after month?
Does your hair color change the way you act?
Does it change the way you’re treated?
Does it change the way you think about yourself?
In Pursuit of the Artificial
For many, age plays a major role in the decision to dye. As Susan Dominus explains in an interesting piece for the NY Times, when you have graying hair, coloring it (or not coloring it) can relay a message about your relationship with aging and your appearance:
“To dye one’s hair is to confess to caring, to fighting age: it fools no one, although it reveals the effort to do so. It only tells the viewer that I am someone who is unwilling and unready to give in to the physical symbols of aging, which is its own social signaling. But not to dye one’s hair is to make a whole other statement: I am someone who does not care. And I am not ready for that one, either.”
Certainly, there must be some more reasonable place between caring and not caring about how we present ourselves to the world! The fear that electing to go natural will relay that Dominus doesn’t “care” about aging or her own appearance reflects the extremity of our own expectations for appearance in the United States. Accepting your natural hair color has now become an act of complete resignation.
In the hilarious and insightful Bossypants, Tina Fey addresses the outlandish expectations for today’s woman more directly:
“Now if you’re not ‘hot,’ you are expected to work on it until you are. It’s like when you renovate a house and you’re legally required to leave just one of the original walls standing. If you don’t have a good body, you’d better starve the body you have down to a neutral shape, then bolt on some breast implants, replace your teeth, dye your skin orange, inject your lips, sew on some hair, and call yourself the Playmate of the Year.”
Fey’s example may seem a bit extreme for Everywoman, but she captures the general process that most of us go through as we attempt to make ourselves into some desirable “type” of woman. We think that our natural hair colors are too boring, ugly, common, old, or basic, so we bleach our way to neutral and fake something we think is better.
The Case for Natural
A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful, charismatic image consultant whose specialty was teaching professionals how to look, well, professional. When it came to hair, her message was always the same: Keep your hair color as close to natural as possible! I know it sounds redundant, but natural looks natural.
In an Into the Gloss article, Editor in Chief of Teen Vogue Amy Astley explains the aha moment that preceded her decision to return to her real color:
“I stopped [dyeing] because I began to see pictures of myself with the flash where I thought, ‘When did I turn into one shade of white blond? I don’t like it at all.’ It also had to do with my age; I don’t want to be an older woman with super fake hair. I don’t have a fake face, I don’t have a fake body—I’ve totally rejected all of that.”
Astley’s perspective highlights a concept that shouldn’t be relegated to the post-Teen Vogue age bracket: In the course of learning to accept and appreciate our bodies, our hair counts too. And in my opinion, being younger doesn’t make being fake any more appealing. We don’t have to wait for a mid-life crisis to start the process of appreciating who we really are.
Living in Asia for almost a year makes it easier to toss in the towel on being blond. The extra attention that my bright hair earned me in the United States is more of an embarrassing annoyance here in China. I’m ready to cut back on the look at that foreigner stares. Just once, I would like to be tripping or sweating or eating a sandwich on the street without an audience.
There’s a comfort in returning to my natural self. I have a hunch that life’s just easier that way.